Escuchanos: Celebrating a Broken Silence
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 22:09
This past Saturday at the Northampton Center for the Arts, theater lovers, students and members of the Springfield community came out to support loved ones in “Escuchanos: Voices, Women in Recovery Speak.” The show, the product of a partnership between the Gandara womens’ residential drug and alcohol treatment program in Holyoke and the Common Threads Performance Collaborative for Social Justice, consisted of vignettes that were artistically selected and arranged to express the marginalization experienced by those recovering from addiction. In the whiteness of the theater’s architectural ornaments, amid the din of the audience the lights fell and, to the crescendo of the drums, performers entered, circling and asking for recognition with their shout: Escuchanos!
Lani Morton, the executive director of Common Threads, said the challenges facing recovering addicts stretch beyond physical and psychological cravings: “They face the powerful social stigma of being labeled an addict, and consequent expulsion from community life.” The script was arduously produced through summer workshops at Gandara house, which were returned with feedback to participants. Through weekly staff discussions, “Escuchanos,” a one-act play, was brainstormed into being. “Ultimately Moana Rawlins [project director] took all of the writing and [put it together]” said Lisbet Portman ’13, performance director. However, the work that came out of the project seems full of a sense of relief: the freedom of an expressed truth. “Women sit circled, speaking her truth, she is from from her bondage…” a poet recited during the performance, her voice echoing throughout the theater. The recitation continued: “…a sacred place, a place of redemption.”
Homelessness, racism and the role of race communities played integral roles in the show. These factors reflected the myriad struggles recovering addicts face, that go beyond physical and psychological cravings. A slideshow is presented halfway through the show, showing images of Puerto Rican markets and bakeries, people waving Puerto Rican flags and food trucks offering “Mexi-Rican” was presented alongside images of smiling children, a school, a play park and potted flowers. “Our barrio,” said the performer following the slideshow, “velas, and crosses. Outsiders in their suburbans don’t realize, our barrio is full of connections.”
Frequently, their creators performed the work that composed the show. Portman helped guide the performers through the emotional challenge of publically performing such intimate material. “Much of the material was difficult, if not impossible, for the writers to get through the first few times around,” said Portman, “But as we practiced they became more comfortable with their stories, and focused instead on how they wanted to go about the telling.”
With performers’ voices cracking under the strain, emotions echoed out from the stage throughout each poem, dance and image, urging the audience to noises of sympathy and acknowledgment. “Everyone sitting in that audience can relate,” said Portman, “and this connection between the conventionally ‘well’ and those deemed ‘deviant’ confuses our ideas of how the world should be organized, and who should be given a voice in matters both political and personal.” The awkwardness of theater, continued Portman, allows the audience to, “listen and respond, think. [Unlike] writing, in theater we need each other to be present- in all of its awkward glory, it affects people.”
The exchange of speech between the performers and the audience paralleled the dynamic backstage between members of the cast and crew. “Every single person involved was vital,” says Portman, “I have never experienced a group that is as invested in its coherence as it is in individual voices. Success was shared across the board.”
While the impact on the audience was immediate, the transformations begun in performance seem likely to continue for the performers. “We were on the way back to Holyoke last night,” says Portman, “and one of the women said, “That’s the most fun I’ve ever had sober. When are we going to do it again?” Another woman in the group enrolled in school this fall, and was describing how different the classroom feels “now that I know I have something to say.
After the final poetic performance, the lights dimmed again, rising on the percussionists who had taken center stage. Couples gathered together around the three men and their Congo drums, preparing to dance. As music from the speakers rose, the familiar steps of the salsa and later, the meringue tugged the whole theater into celebration that follows the shattering of a deep silence.